Thursday, December 4, 2014

"The Congress": When Social Commentary Goes Looney Tunes

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

The Congress was undoubtedly not the film I was expecting it to be, and if the disc’s box art is all you go by, you will certainly be as surprised as I was.  The film advertises itself as a sci-fi speculation on the future of cinema and the detriment this will be to artistic integrity, but instead transitions into an apocalyptic warning of the powers of mass consumerism and the substitution of mass media for the pleasures of reality.  I wouldn’t go so far to say that I think that the transition is an entirely successful one, and the film does meander into some unnecessarily abstract territory, but if you are willing to deal with an unnecessarily obtuse third act, this may be the film for you.

Our main character is a fictionalized self-portrayal of actress Robin Wright (best known for her role as Buttercup in The Princess Bride), who has left acting behind to raise her children.  However, Miramount Studios (I see what they did there…) offers her a deal for the chance to become a relevant star again by selling a digitally animated copy of herself to the studio so that they may keep making films ad infinitum with her as the face of it all.  In order to pay for treatments to her son’s chronic illness, Robin agrees.  This all takes roughly forty-five minutes to play out, and is probably the film’s strongest third, establishing Robin as a sympathetic character faced with circumstances that force her to bend to the whims of a manipulative entertainment mogul.

However, this is where the film gets weird.  Flash forward twenty years, and Robin visits the Futurological Congress, where everyone has taken a hallucinogenic drug that makes them an animated cartoon.  The visual shift is jarring to say the least, and the animation starts off as a Technicolor assault on the eyes, with bright colors and bending lines creating the cinematic equivalent to an LSD trip.  This is also where the film shows its hand, describing films as a dead medium and depicting the horror of a future where life is nothing more than escapist entertainment that entirely supplants reality.  It is sometimes painfully blunt in getting this message across, with a pivotal scene clearly paralleling Apple-style press conferences to cultish fanaticism, but it serves its purpose.

The final third of the film, though, gets even stranger, as it seemingly abandons its message in favor of using the abstract nature of its animation to the fullest extent, taking wild narrative detours that really serve no other purpose than to show us some weird shit.  One might be tempted to think that this absurdity was leading to a grander point, but unfortunately the film blew that load by the halfway point, and the rest feels all too much like padding.  Robin herself doesn’t even feel like a substantial character by the end of it all, completely consumed by the film’s attempts to use visual absurdity to convey the absurdity of mass entertainment.  The film is mostly running on fumes for the last twenty minutes, and even the creative animation cannot save it, because by that point the strangeness of it all is nothing but white noise.

That said, though, The Congress is an alright film.  It’s overlong and pretentious to be sure, but the parts that work do work decently well, and I’m willing to forgive the lackluster third act in favor of its strong opening and solid second act.  If you find the experience becomes too tiresome by the ninety minute mark, I wouldn’t blame you for wanting to shut it off, but that first ninety minutes is a decent enough film to warrant a viewing.

Can animation and live acting effectively combine to make symbolic points in cinema?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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